REVIEW: The Girl on the Train

5 10 2016

Arguably the most famous close-ups in cinema history take place in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the 1928 silent classic that elevated the expressively tight framed shot of facial contortions to the position of high art. Dreyer later said of the close-up, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.”

It’s a blessing Dreyer did not live to see Tate Taylor’s “The Girl on the Train,” a film that puts the close-up to shame through bludgeoning and excessive use. This specific shot is the movie’s only language to convey the internal agony of its three leading female characters. No need to waste time detailing the multitude of other techniques available at Taylor’s disposal, so let’s just leave it at the fact that the close-up is lazy shorthand for emotional intimacy.

The camera tries to substitute the reservoirs of feeling hidden by the icy women, each with their own secrets to bury and axes to grind. Their blank stares into the distance are meant to convey restraint or secrecy; instead, they convey nothing. One only needs to hold up the work of star Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train” alongside her performance in “Sicario” to see the difference. In the latter film, the most minuscule movement in Blunt’s face communicates a complex response to the ever-shifting environment around her character Kate Macer. Here, as the alcoholic voyeur Rachel Watson, Blunt is reduced to gasps and gazes that do little to illuminate her psychology.

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REVIEW: Tallulah

30 07 2016

Tallulah“Juno” still ranks among the top 10 quoted movies at my house, so it should come as no surprise that the on-screen reunion of that film’s mother-daughter pair (Allison Janney and Ellen Page) in “Tallulah” came as a welcome development. And, even better, the film centers around issues of maternity!

In Sian Heder’s new film, Page stars as the titular character, a nomad who scoops an infant from drugged-up trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) during a babysitting gig. The point of departure for the story provides an intriguing counterpoint to “Juno.” Page claims a child here uninvitedly and receives one in her Oscar-nominated role unwittingly.

There’s a bit of standard police procedural – involving Uzo Aduba as a child services officer! – investigating the victim and plaguing the conscience of the perpetrator. But “Tallulah” is far less about the intrigue of what will happen to the child in question than it is about the issues raised by its presence or absence for the trio of grown women in the film. Amidst some of the tonal and plot issues, raw emotions bubble to the surface as each grapples with the thorny personal issues.

Most moments of duress revolve around the characters’ insecurity over feeling needed by someone else and the overwhelming sensation that they are replaceable – even disposable. It’s often jarring how quickly “Tallulah” can pivot from light-hearted banter to soul-baring confession, but no one pulls it off better than Janney as Margo, the woman unknowingly caught in the middle of Tallulah’s scheme. She navigates a narrow path between assertiveness and apprehension, unsurprisingly finding her bearings with gusto. B-2stars





REVIEW: Spy

6 06 2015

Prior to “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy was one lumbering burlesque of a physical performance away from entering Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell territory.  This land, beyond typecasting, is a dump of sneering self-parody churned out at breakneck speed.  After breakout success in “Bridesmaids,” roles in “Identity Thief” and “Tammy” reduced her to little more than a one-dimensional punchline (not to mention a bit of a punching bag as well).

Thankfully, maestro Paul Feig arrives with Susan Cooper, a part that provides a well-timed reminder of McCarthy’s remarkable comic agility and versatility.  As an unlikely secret agent tracking down a rogue nuclear weapon on the black market, Susan often has to shift gears into new – and often unflattering – identities on the fly.  While playing a character who goes from shy and sheepish to brash and outspoken within a matter of minutes, McCarthy never appears anything less than completely confident.

Unfortunately, Feig’s script for “Spy” reserves all the surprises and range for its star.  In his past collaborations with Melissa McCarthy, Feig worked with screenplays from other comediennes: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”) as well as Katie Dippold (“The Heat“).  When tasked with creating the humor he has to orchestrate, Feig falls into rather predictable patterns that often feel one-note.

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REVIEW: Tammy

12 07 2014

With their collaboration on “Tammy,” writer/star Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Ben Falcone construct what may very well be the cinematic equivalent of Sarah Palin’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.”  It’s a film about a road trip to nowhere that gets everyone involved in its making nowhere.

Coming off an Oscar nomination and three box office hits, it’s a shame McCarthy spent what was likely carte blanche with the studios on a project that offers nothing new for her talents.  Even though she was so heavily involved with the film’s creation, “Tammy” offers little humor other than jokes at the expense of her character’s weight or lacking mental capacity.  It’s almost as if she wants the two characteristics to be linked, which baffles me.

Was the point is to prove that McCarthy can play the woman-child archetype as well as, say, Vince Vaughn can play the man-child?  Or that a character like McCarthy’s Tammy can pull in a romantic conquest in spite of her figure and eccentric personality?  I could maybe see “Tammy” sounding like a great feminist victory in its premise, yet in execution, the movie is every bit as bumbling as its titular character.  If McCarthy really wanted to do something radical, she should have made a film where her figure was never addressed at all.

Over the course of 96 minutes (that feel much longer), Falcone and McCarthy give us a whole lot of time on the road with Tammy and her grandmother Pearl, an alcoholic played by Susan Sarandon.  Tammy and Pearl don’t quite have any grand purpose to be road tripping in the first place other than … well, something had to give “Tammy” a plot!

The quite-literal journey in the story is the perfect opportunity to explore a similar progression in the protagonist, but they can never quite figure out what virtues or values Tammy is going to discover.  The film toys with the idea of her gaining self-appreciation while also contemplating a familial love angle, never taking the time to fully develop one or the other.  It ultimately slaps on an ending favoring a rediscovered bond between its two female leads, and the conclusion feels rather unearned.

That’s not to say that McCarthy did not earn the opportunity to make “Tammy,” though.  The fact that this is film she chose to make from that position, however, is likely to remain a question mark for the rest of her career.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Bad Words

7 07 2014

Bad WordsJason Bateman has long been saddled with the reputation as a go-to guy for playing the uptight, no-nonsense straight man in comedy.  After having finally watched “Arrested Development,” I can see why he got typecast – he’s quite skilled at it.  But too much of a good thing can get quite boring, and he’s rarely given a great supporting cast to whom he can react.

It appears that in order to get a different kind of role, Bateman had to step behind the camera himself for “Bad Words.”  His performance recalls two others in films that also began with the same word: Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” and Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher.”  Bateman tackles a character, Guy Trilby, who is more or less irredeemably rotten to the core, save the one classic written-in soft spot that gets exposed over the course of the film.

Guy exploits a loophole in a national spelling bee – he never graduated from middle school – and enters himself into competition at the ripe old age of 40.  His presence alone angers parents, but they’d probably put a bullet through his head if they knew the shenanigans he pulled to fluster their kids.  Stuck in arrested development as an 11-year-old bully, Guy ruthlessly humiliates vulnerable and insecure teenagers into making mistakes at the microphone.

Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge clearly intend these moments to be funny, but all too often, “Bad Words” seems too far away from any sort of moral compass.  Rather than eliciting laughs, they activate our sympathy and pity for the kids Guy is picking on.  It’s not unlike the feeling I had watching “The Wolf of Wall Street,” wondering how I could possibly find humor and levity at the expense of someone else’s livelihood.

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REVIEW: Touchy Feely

5 08 2013

Touchy FeelyHow ironic that director Lynn Shelton should begin to lose her touch in the film “Touchy Feely,” a film about people who literally touch for a living.

All the seemingly effortless perceptiveness into our very humanity in Shelton’s prior two films “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” have eluded her grasp in her latest feature.  “Touchy Feely” is a mess, unfocused and unorganized from the get-go.  Shelton writes plenty of interestingly odd characters, but they ultimately offer us nothing to take home and apply to our own lives because we can’t identify with them.

The film jumps from emotional non-sequitur to emotional non-sequitur as everyone seems to act in only the most bizarre and irrational ways possible.  Whether it’s taking ecstasy, forcing their significant other to strip in a bathroom at their place of business (only to then walk out), or going to an experimental massage therapist to improve their dentistry, Shelton’s got the sheer unpredictability of human nature cornered.  The problem is, however, that none of these quirks add up to anything – nor do they highlight anything about what it means to be alive, or in love, or a productive member of society.

The actors could have turned “Touchy Feely” into their showcase by picking up the slack from Shelton’s script, but they wind up falling into the same humdrum, forgettable pattern of the film.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s erratic Abby shows nowhere near the vitality and inner life of her titular bride in “Rachel Getting Married,” and Ellen Page just plays Juno on downers.  Not even Allison Janney could breathe any fresh air into the film.

On a final sad note, I was really hoping this would be a breakout role for Josh Pais, a stalwart character actor who first caught my eye as a cantankerous Harlem teacher in “Music of the Heart” when I was seven years old.  He’s been popping up in movies and TV shows for years, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him.  But his role in “Touchy Feely,” a deadbeat dentist, was a droning monotone. Hopefully he gets another shot at a big part like this again; I just hope this wasn’t the first time a casting agent saw him on screen.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: The Way Way Back

4 08 2013

Two years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash stood on stage at the Academy Awards behind Alexander Payne as he delivered the majority of their acceptance speech for writing “The Descendants.” While Payne waxed poetic to millions of people, Faxon and Rash drew the attention of the cameramen through a bizarre stunt – mocking Angelina Jolie’s flaunting of her flawless leg as it protruded out of her dress that very night.

As soon as I saw that, I thought to myself that they must have provided the humor in “The Descendants,” and the tragedy and drama came courtesy of Alexander Payne. But after seeing Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut “The Way Way Back,” which they also wrote together, I’m not so sure my assumption was correct. The dynamic duo crafted a truly heartfelt and genuine film that is equal parts uproarious comedy and poignant drama. Not a moment in the movie feels false as everything hits home just by being honest.

The film might not be the most original as it is a fairly typical entry into the coming-of-age sub genre. The protagonist, Duncan, is a shy turtle of a 14-year-old boy headed for a summer at the beach with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Both of them struggle to fit into Trent’s pre-existing world, although Pam has no escape. Duncan manages to find a surrogate family for the summer at the Water Wizz water park under the tutelage of the quick-witted Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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